Cover Story – Jonathan Smith, Citizen of the Year

Citizen of the Year
Jonathan Smith

By George Beck, Joel E. Gordon, Joe Uliano and Eddie Vega

The first burst sounded like the slow steady pops of a strip of firecrackers, perhaps special effects from the stage a few feet away where country music star Jason Aldean was performing. If not that then the fireworks that were common above the skies of the Las Vegas Strip, but the sky was dark so it was not that. Then, as the music continued to play, a longer and faster burst. Then the music stopped and Aldean ran from the stage. That’s when Jonathan Smith, 30, an aspiring police officer from California, realized that what he had heard was automatic gunfire and that he and the over 20,000 concertgoers around him were targets.

He realized something else because he had a sense of place. Before he entered the grounds he had mapped out in his head the area in relation to the streets outside, Mandalay and Reno. This was something he regularly did in the greater Los Angeles area as he drove from city to city servicing copy machines, many of them in police stations. Now as the bullets hit the stage, speakers and sound booth, ricocheting off poles and the ground, Aldean and the security guards fled the stage, and the lights went out.

As some cowered under the stage, and one hid in a standing fridge, directly in front of Smith in half-shadow, a woman in a white dress was shot in the head, her body stiff as it hit the ground. Like her, many others died where they stood. By now he knew the gunfire was coming from the direction of Mandalay Drive. Although the shooter, Stephen Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nevada, was on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino hotel, where he would fire over 1,100 rounds, Smith believed, as many there did, that the shooter was firing at ground level from the Strip.

But whether high up or down low, to flee that way was to court death. Safety lay away from there, in the direction of Reno. He sprang to action and redirected concertgoers, some stampeding, some standing in fear, and some who were huddled behind a sheriff’s patrol car at the edge of the concert lawn, away from Mandalay and toward Reno shouting, “Active shooter, active shooter, let’s go! We have to run.” Because of the darkness, they latched on to his belt and formed a quick-moving human centipede; otherwise, he steered disoriented groups or carried wounded individuals with help, over a fence to safety and returned to save more.

As two men carrying a woman shot in the face, her cheeks red and swollen, rushed past him, he saw two young girls who had tried to take cover but were still exposed to the line of fire. To get the girls’ attention and urge them to lie flat on the ground, Smith rose to his full height. That’s when he felt a burning sensation followed by a wetness spreading down his T-shirt and pants. A bullet had struck him in the pocket between his neck and shoulder, fracturing his collarbone, cracking a rib, bruising a lung, and causing massive bleeding.

The hero who saved 30 lives, one for each of his years, was down and it would take another hero to get him out of there. Enter vacationing San Diego police officer Tommy McGrath, 26, dressed in a faded purple T-shirt, swim trunks, and flip flops.

McGrath tore off Smith’s white T-shirt, formed a ball with it. “This is going to hurt,” he told him, before shoving the ball into the wound with two fingers. The bullet had obliterated many nerve endings, but not enough. The pain was intense.

There were many others in similar need. For those with leg or arm wounds, he turned shirts into tourniquets and turned them with a stick he found nearby until the victims shrieked in pain, a sign that the pressure was about right. There were some wounds though that no ball or tourniquet could help.

He returned to Smith, gathering him with two young women who had also been shot, and flagged down a red pickup truck. He loaded them onto the flatbed and told the driver to seek assistance. The women had limb wounds and were in such shrieking panic that there was little doubt they would live. Smith, however, was gravely subdued and going in and out of consciousness. As the truck sped off, McGrath chalked him off as one of that night’s many DOAs.

Smith lived. He passed quickly through the emergency room, triage, and settled into the trauma center. While there he lent his cellphone to other victims of the shooting even as the battery was down to two bars of life. He had made the calls he had needed to make, the farewells to family and friends, and one selfie to a doubting Instagram friend of the gaping wound.

The bullet remains where it lodged. Surgeons are hesitant to remove it because of its proximity to an artery. The risks outweigh the potential benefits. In time, the body might reject the bullet naturally or form a seal around it so it does not shift or enter the bloodstream. The entry area shows a bumpy discoloration but no scarring. In the meantime, he cannot lift his arm above his shoulder without burning pain. And he feels pin-prick phantom pain in the immediate area of the wound where the nerves were severed if not outright liquefied.

While not undergoing rehab and managing pain, he studies for the entrance exams of several South California police departments, including that of his hometown Buena Park, and the California Highway Patrol. He hopes to follow the public service model of the man who saved his life, Tommy McGrath, during what would become the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The final count: 59 dead, including the shooter (who shot himself), 546 wounded, over 15 lawsuits filed against the hotel, where the shooter had set up his sniper nest, and Live Nation, the concert’s organizer.

There is another count, a small number to be sure, but one that in the larger human scheme is no less important: When Jonathan Smith and Tommy McGrath reconnected after the shooting, each had found a new brother in the other.

Celebrating the man who became a hero saving lives; our hero took a bullet (not a knee).
By George Beck, Joel Gordon, Joseph Uliano and Eddie Vega

The folks at GQ Magazine think otherwise, preferring to celebrate a millionaire athlete whose purpose is shortsighted, self-serving, and ripe with facts that don’t add up, and square-pegged narratives forced into round holes. Their hero didn’t risk greatly. Instead, he turned a false narrative into an attempt to make himself something greater than a star athlete—he sought to become a popular culture icon, and GQ perhaps gave him a much-needed lift at a time when he sorely needed, when fans and others rightfully moved on. But that’s where his story ends.

Here’s where the real story begins.

Jonathan Smith and his family drove nearly five hours from Orange County, California to Las Vegas for a festive weekend celebration of an older brother, Louis Rust’s birthday. Attending the Harvest Country Music festival was a potential tradition in the making, since Louis had attended in the past and this time sought to bring along additional family members including three nieces to share in the enjoyment of country music, excitement and energy in the Sin City. This year, Jason Aldean was headlining and the Smith’s had gotten seats close to the stage for Aldean’s prime-time performance. In the moments that followed, Smith, 30, an aspiring police officer and copy machine repairman, would turn into a national hero worthy of much praise—if of course he lived to see it.

Thanks to vacationing off-duty San Diego Police Officer Tommy McGrath, Smith would do so. McGrath, 26 was equally excited to be attending the same concert with family and friends when gunshots rang out.

Smith rescued over 30 concertgoers while many bedded down, or ran the other way. It was extreme chaos, and fear. Running the other way is natural response to the grave danger in one’s path. It’s part of the human condition that seeks to survive. And then there are those who commit extraordinary acts of heroism, those who take great risks to help others. Smith is among these heroes. His instinct to save the lives nearly cost him his when a bullet from a lunatic’s rage drove him to the pavement.

Smith lay on the ground mortally wounded, the bullet lodged in the separation between his neck and shoulder, bleeding profusely. He had seconds to survive. His guardian angel arrived. Enter Officer McGrath who stood over him and assessed his situation. Stop the bleeding, McGrath sought. Pack the wound and get him to a hospital as fast as possible, where McGrath admits he thought Smith would likely be pronounced dead.

Like most veteran officers, McGrath would say it was nothing more than, “Brother Helping Brother!” Smith cannot disagree with that, as he now refers to McGrath as his brother, recalling McGrath saying, “I will not leave you behind.”Smith’s unwavering commitment to those in need created a bond that will never be forgotten by the lives he touched. A bond that is equivalent to that of a family; however, this sense of family was not created by marriage or blood, but rather out of the love form mankind and making right when everything around seemed so wrong. This bond doesn’t see race, nor religion, or creed. It is sees humans for humans. Heart beat for heart beat.

Smith’s and McGrath’s newly formed relationship goes far deeper than one can ever image. It is a bond that can only be compared to comrades sharing a foxhole, as two individuals become one to lift the paralytic fear from each other, which can only be observed when courage is under fire. Smith’s innate desire to survive ignited a fire of instinct and heroism that can only be shared with individuals who share the same traits, which is what really brought Smith and McGrath together, a bond that can only be described as a “Warrior’s Bond.”

The connection between Smith and McGrath serves to articulate what “Brotherhood” truly stands for as their surface shows no commonalities between each other, but when we look beneath the surface we see to men fueled by the desire to give life when so many out there are willing to take it. When awarding McGrath for his actions, the critics will say, “It’s his job.” To some degree this callous and unemotional remark holds some truth, but those who stand behind the line, have a difference of opinion, as they know all too well that his actions go above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, awarding Smith falls under an unprecedented category. A man, a simple man doing nothing more than enjoying the innocence of a concert is called into action and responds with valor that is consistent to those who have lived life on the battlefield and who has witnessed the brother next to them fall, prompting the will to fight and carryon, knowing that they could fall next. For these acts of heroism, Jonathan Smith is the appropriate person worthy of the title “Citizen of the Year.”

Smith neither sought the national spotlight nor was he pushing a personal agenda. He was just someone in the right place and time when others needed him, and he answered the call. His name recognition came from a picture showing him in the hospital with a large white bandage covering the bullet hole in his neck, which was posted to the Internet and subsequently went viral bringing his act of heroism to the attention of a large audience. He doesn’t live a life of excess, nor does he wish to. His dream career is modest. He seeks to become a police officer to help others—and while doing so combat the unfortunate stigma that maligns all officers as bloodthirsty lunatics out there to kill as many innocent people as possible. Smith knows the truth.

NJ Blue Now magazine believes in recognizing true bravery and those who have taken meaningful lifesaving actions. We humbly honor those who channel their skills to force the bad out of our world so that the good can prosper and thrive. Jonathan Smith and Tommy McGrath are two such men. Saving the lives of 30 others not previously known to him without hesitation, taking a bullet in the process (not a knee), Jonathan Smith is a true hero and for that we are honored to bestow upon him our highest civilian award by naming him our 2017 Citizen of the Year.